Athena’s Fermentables: Girl Groups Grow Up

By Tara Nurin

It’s been more than four years since I first wrote about the proliferation of women-in-beer groups. At that time I reported that consumer-based education and social groups for women were rapidly sprouting up around the world, taking root in breweries, bars, bottle shops and anywhere else that women could compare tasting notes over a few tulips.

Now that these clubs are maturing, we’re seeing signs of an evolution. Progressive leaders are adopting sophisticated business models and educational outreach programs, selling sponsorships, developing internships and dipping into publishing. Girl groups are starting to grow up.

“We all ferment and we all have a passion for this community that we share,” Short’s Brewing “Beer Liberator” (read: sales rep) Pauline Knighton says to explain the ‘why’ behind her new Michigan trade group. Launched last summer as the first to serve women interested or involved in the craft beer, wine and spirits industries, “Fermenta” shows the rest of us what’s possible.

Pauline originally envisioned Fermenta as a professional group, offering educational opportunities, networking and corporate connections to women working in the state’s alcohol industry. But when she realized how many women were looking for ways to break into the business, she set up what may be the country’s first 2-tiered membership system. Now, professionals pay $30 in annual dues and consumers pay $20 to access pro-am brew days, in-depth style workshops taught by Certified Cicerones, and for a select few, days spent shadowing brewers and brewery bigwigs.

Pauline and her co-founders have also submitted an application for non-profit status, which will allow them to access grants and provide scholarships. By the end of the year, they hope to announce some industry internships available exclusively to Fermenta members.

Though Fermenta is geared primarily toward industry insiders, consumer groups are also finding creative sources for funding, conducting more intense teaching sessions and leveraging their power to provide a targeted audience to producers and retailers. Outside Vancouver, a chapter of the Barley’s Angels women-in-beer umbrella organization sells sponsorships to local breweries and pubs for $60 CAD a year. As per the chapter’s website, it buys sponsors the ability to “Educate female public about your products or services.” It’s a shrewd approach to what’s generally an all-volunteer endeavor.

On the education side, Barley’s Angels chairperson Christine Jump says the leader of the Tampa Bay BA chapter published a beer-tasting journal so her members could better track the development of their palate. Christine also says a chapter in Germany spearheaded the delivery of Rogue Ales into the country for a festival and provided the volunteers to pour it.

Last fall, Christine did something novel herself. She organized the first Barley’s Angels conference, in Portland, where chapter leaders spent two days touring Rogue’s hop farm and learning about topics like “The Alchemy of Glassware” and “Promoting to get Love from the Press.” The organization, which requires its chapters to build education into every event, used the weekend to launch its national breast-cancer fundraising partnership with Green Flash Brewing.

Here in New Jersey, the group I founded is amping up its instructive efforts, too. Our educational committee books speakers, runs all-day style and pairing seminars and disseminates informational articles. We SKYPE monthly with prominent women in the beer world, and at the Atlantic City Beer & Music Festival, we’ll be staffing the info booth to explain styles to novices and steer them to beers they might like. We’re getting ready to launch what I think is the first beer book club just for women, and we’re researching how to offer scholarships to entry-level beer and brewing programs.

The “progress,” however, is not without its skeptics. Teri Fahrendorf, who launched the international Pink Boots Society for professional beer women in 2007, worries that local industry groups like Fermenta might splinter what’s still a small pool of women. But Pauline counters that it’s easier to facilitate relationships among people who live in the same state.

And as Teri concedes, the consumer groups pick up where Pink Boots ends – with women who want to learn about beer or enter the business but aren’t there yet. In fact, it’s in part because of Pink Boots, which created then spun off Barley’s Angels, that the professional and consumer space is now filled with so many more women clamoring for these opportunities. As we continue to evolve, it will be they who can further the Pink Boots legacy.

Until next time, let that ferment.

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